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Word Games We Play   


Today, pro-lifers are perhaps the only group that is not identified in the media by its preferred name. “The general newsroom tendency to let every group call itself whatever it wants to (gays, Native Americans, African-Americans) is suspended for right-to-life activists,” writes John Leo in US News and World Report. Leo then reflects on the consequences of such manipulations of the language and explains how terms used in the media can influence public opinion.

Why can’t activists call themselves what they want?

Several columns ago, when I wrote that “students, disability activists, and pro-lifers” were demonstrating at Princeton, the copy desk here at U.S. News wanted to change “pro-lifers” to “abortion opponents.” The proposed change was by the book. Like most news organizations, this magazine uses “abortion-rights activists” and “abortion opponents,” not “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” But in this case “abortion opponents” was clearly not an adequate term. The issue at Princeton wasn’t abortion. It was infanticide. The university had appointed a professor who believes parents should be allowed to kill their severely disabled babies.

Here’s the verbal issue, debated for years in newsrooms: Pro-lifers don’t like the word “pro-choice” because it eliminates the noun that faces up to the violent act involved (abortion) and replaces it with a warm and toasty abstract word that always scores well in focus groups (choice). And pro-choicers don’t like “pro-life” because it implies that supporters of the abortion option are pro-death.

But pro-lifers aren’t one-issue activists. They strongly oppose euthanasia, doctor-assisted suicide, ordinary suicide, infanticide, and (often, but not always) capital punishment. Terms such as “antiabortion advocates” and “abortion opponents” fail to reflect this broad commitment to the “life” side of so many life-or-death issues. Out of fairness (and accuracy), the media should restore the “pro-life” tag or come up with something similar. Given the ideological makeup of the newsroom today, this change is unlikely. In fact, in editorial columns at least, there is a small but growing trend toward using the sneering term “anti-choice” to describe pro-life beliefs. The general newsroom tendency to let every group call itself whatever it wants to (gays, Native Americans, African-Americans) is suspended for right-to-life activists.


Hot button

A lot of word games are in play in the continuing dispute over “partial-birth abortion.” The U.S. News stylebook warns that this term is “arguably inflammatory, so if you must use it, put ‘partial-birth’ in quotation marks.” This seems like a fair way to handle it. The term points clearly to the procedure under discussion (as the journalistic catch-phrase “certain late-term abortions” does not), while the quote marks signal that the term is a contested one.

Again, the U.S. News stylebook makes sense: “Alternative terms, which have problems of their own, include ‘a form of late-term abortion,’ (which is so broad that it is obfuscating) and ‘intact dilation and extraction’ (which is obfuscatingly clinical).”

Skirmishes over language are everywhere these days, often driven by the culture war. The left strongly favors the term “affirmative action,” which draws a warm response in polls, and strongly resents the term “race and gender preferences,” which always draws heavy poll opposition. So when opponents of affirmative action gathered petitions to get a ban on race and gender preferences on the ballot in the City of Houston, the mayor and City Council undermined the effort by changing the ballot wording at the last minute. The original antipreference text, derived from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said “the City of Houston shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin. . . . ” This wording was changed to “Shall the Charter of the City of Houston be amended to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities. . . .?” Because of the positive aura around the term “affirmative action,” voters said no. (Versions of the original wording passed handily in California and Washington State.) A Texas judge threw out the results of the vote. An appeals court is considering the language issue, which has been legally contested for two years now, with months or perhaps another year still to go.

Support for affirmative action is now regarded as so sensitive to language that the left is busy looking for words to substitute for “preferences.” The White House has discussed “race-based” proposals, several scholars favor “race-sensitive” college admissions and Jesse Jackson talks of “race-caring” policies. Success is presumed to be in the wording, not the plans themselves.

Wording, in fact, is often crucial. For instance, the euthanasia/assisted suicide issue has widely become known as the “right-to-die” issue. Committing suicide with the help of a doctor, in fact, is not broadly recognized as a right, but the “right-to-die” language has created the opinion that it already is.

As the word “euthanasia” gives way to the term “assisted suicide,” issues of consent are beginning to blur. Some forms of nonconsensual “assistance” to the extremely ill are discussed under the heading of “suicide,” just as the first wave of serious proposals for medical killing are being positioned as “assistance.”

This intellectual and moral blurring is helped along by terms like “aid in dying,” which can cover everything from holding a dying person’s hand to employing doctors to dispatch sick people who have never requested death. Doctors in the Netherlands have indeed slid down this slippery slope, which is made all the more slippery by slick language. The obvious is true: Words matter.


Leo, John. “Word Games We Play.” U.S. News and World Report (Oct, 6, 1999)

Reprinted by permission of John Leo and U.S. News and World Report.


John Leo writes the Outlook column for U.S. News and World Report.

Copyright © 1999 US News&World Report



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved